Nameless and Characterization, plus some Confessions

Just wanted to share with  you all where I am with Nameless right now, and how the process is really teaching me a lesson about characterization.

(Spoiler: The lesson is that you should do it. Really. You should do it from the very beginning and not 10 years later).

When I decided to add in Number 23’s perspective, I was super excited because I could envision all of these scenes, and couldn’t wait to get down everything in his particular style. But after the first new chapter I was forced to stop, and take a huge step backwards all the way to the brainstorming stage.

I’m the kind of writer that can’t move forward until I know I have a solid base behind me. Even if I envision really cool scenes midway through or at the end, I can only write snippets and not the complete scene, because I don’t know the context. Where has the story caused them to be in the setting? What has just happened the chapter before that is fresh on their minds? There’s so much I can’t include because I just don’t know it yet. And I won’t know the previous scene until I have the one before it, etc., etc., backing all the way up to the beginning of the book.

A book is a series of causes and effects, and I have a hard time doing them out of order.

And so, I was unable to move forward with Number 23 until I knew what he and the Poetess had been up to in the previous chapter. Okay, no problem, I thought. I’ll just edit these first couple chapters really quick. After all, how much could really change? These chapters have been solid for years.

And then I realized.

When I first started writing this story, I was 15. I had read a lot, but I didn’t know anything about actual craft. So while I had these characters, they didn’t really have backstories. How did the Poetess come to be the Poetess? Not a clue. Where was her family? No idea. Who was Number 23 close to in the Barracks? Irrelevant.

For my age, for that draft… it didn’t matter. As the story evolved certain background details were woven in, but only to justify choices I’d made when I was 15. Is that really how I, or you, want this story to go?

And so, while I have written a shiny, amazing new chapter that demonstrates so much through just actions and dialogue (author win!), most of my ‘writing time’ this week has been spent brainstorming with my BFF since 8th grade.

Amber is a sociologist the same way that I am a writer, which makes her input invaluable while we are figuring out how the Nameless world would really work. She has been a reader of this story since the original draft, and my primary CP while writing the original second book, so she’s been on this journey just about as long as I have. Plus, as official BFFs, we have been endowed with magical powers, such as telepathy. It’s pretty great. No, I’m not kidding.

Anyway, Amber swears she loves this story as much as I do, though I have doubts in that regard. Still, it’s hard to deflect her protestations when she dedicates hours out of her life each week to type or skype with me, listening as I babble and making me unpack my instincts until we figure out what’s really going on. She’s amazing, I tell you, and an excellent steward for this brainstorming process.

Thanks to her, for the first time in my life I’m making a story bible, and recording the facts and details that had previously existed only in my head. Stuff like the exact structure of the government, whether rape is a thing in this society, and if so, how it is perceived, what happens to a parent’s slaves when the parent dies, etc.

This is stuff that won’t necessarily get included in the story, but is imperative to figuring out the current climate and background motivations for my characters. Clarifying where they come from and how their social backgrounds will affect them has opened up so many pathways and revelations and that it’s staggering.

It is also triggering some pretty big plot changes.

I just want to be up front with you about that. The beginning is still mostly the same, and they end up in the same place, but the reasons are different.

You guys, the reasons are better.

I would also like to confess something embarrassing about Number 23, or Shae, as he’s called later on. He was the first love interest I ever wrote. Him and the Poetess were my first couple, my first true characters, my first everything. But I never really knew him.

That’s such a weird thing to write, right? I’m sure you’re sitting there thinking, ‘what the crap are you talking about?’ but it’s true. His muteness wasn’t just to the reader, it was often to his very creator.

I can’t have a conversation with him, even in my mind, like I can with other characters. His motivation, his reasons — he keeps those close to the chest. One time I even had to go to incredible lengths to map out what I thought he was feeling in each chapter of the book, just because it was so difficult to intuit. But guessing how a character feels and knowing how they feel are two totally different things. Shae was a stranger to me.

I recognize how much of an epic fail that is (do people still say ‘epic fail’, or am I totally dating myself to the early 2000’s here?). And yet, I think Shae’s characterization has been part of the problem.

Because I didn’t know his background, because I didn’t fully allow myself to see and experience what he’d gone through, I couldn’t know his values, his boundaries, or how far he would go to protect himself. I forced him into actions that didn’t make sense, for the sake of a plot I’d already developed without his input. And because I wasn’t letting him make authentic choices, I didn’t really know who he was.

But I’ve reached a point with this story where I know that if I do not tear it down to the foundation I will never be able to fix its flaws. Part of that means letting go of how I used to think Shae would act, or trying to change his internal character to bring about plot twists I wanted him to initiate. I can’t have it both ways. I can’t have him feel a natural affinity for this woman who represents danger to him, but also have him be totally cold and focused only on his own survival.

Through his new chapters Shae is showing me parts of him I haven’t seen before, and it’s going to affect how he takes to the life of a slave, which will completely alter how he reacts to the increased role of the Rebellion in both their lives. It’s a ripple effect from there.

But don’t worry; Nameless is in good hands. At this point in time I just want to represent what’s authentic and true about this story. I’m willing to sacrifice what has historically been present for a new narrative that I think could finally present everything I ever wanted to show you. About these two characters, at least.

And so, if there are any young writers out there reading this, please learn from my lesson, and don’t forget to give your characters families, and childhoods, and friends. Learn how their backgrounds affected them, then go from there.

Trust me, it is so much easier that way.

Some fun stuff for you:

Gratitude Buddies! I thought I was a grateful person, but when you have to send 5 things you are grateful for to someone each day, and make it honest and meaningful, gratitude is hard. Here are 5 things I was grateful for the other day, addressed to Amber:

  1. A BFF who actually enjoys talking about my stories and stuff, because I have never been excited about someone else’s novel the way you are excited about mine, and that is very special.
  2. You introducing me to Alanis Morissette, which led to, among other things, the purchase of a Vegetarian cookbook from which I was cooking last night.
  3. The bluetooth speakers Chris got for Christmas that allow me to play Mumford & Sons REALLY LOUDLY when I cook.
  4. The flowers Chris and I decided I could buy every week so we always have fresh flowers in the house. So grateful for that every time I see them. I love flowers. Although it is sad to see them die.
  5. Being able to find one more of my favorite notebooks at B&N, AT A DISCOUNT.

Books & Such Blog: Wow, I have never found such a consistently fascinating and informative blog about writing. If you don’t follow this one already, start!

4 Books I’ve Loved Lately: As a writer I have a whole guilt complex in reviewing and recommending books, but these are some I read lately that I really adored:

  1. The Night Circus – read it for the beauty, for the magic.
  2. The Darkest Minds – read it for the amazing, striking ending.
  3. The Casual Vacancy – read it for the excellent characterization
  4. The Gate to Women’s Country – read it for the startling similarities to Nameless, and also the amazing revelation

Nameless Pinterest Board! It’s not very full. Finding stuff that fits is so hard.

Laini Taylor’s essays on writing. Laini Taylor is one of my writing role models, and a website devoted to her thoughts on writing still seems too good to be true.

That’s all folks.

<3, Savannah

2 thoughts on “Nameless and Characterization, plus some Confessions

  1. First–Yes and more Yes to reading Night Circus. I devoured it and now want to go back and read it again.

    Congrats on the progress with Nameless! Sometimes I feel like I’ve gotten too close to a character in my head without truly getting to know them–like knowing someone casually for years and never really realizing you have no idea what they do for a living or when their birthday is, you know? Or, the same-result /opposite cause problem–I know *all* this stuff and fail to share any of the necessary bits with the reader!

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